Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Book Reviews February 2015

The Swerve: How The World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt.  I chose to begin this book after completing Anthony Marra’s novel, which contained many torture scenes.  I figuredThe Swerve would be the opposite of torture, and it basically was, except for, you know, the occasional burning to death during the Inquisition….  Greenblatt traces the impact of Lucretius’s poem, On the Nature of Things, from the times in which it was written, to its disappearance for centuries, and then its discovery by Poggio Bracciolini, a rather secular papal secretary in the 1400’s.  He uses the poem as a fascinating way into an exegesis of the beginning of modern thought, and how whereas the poem was first a product of its epicurean times, readers and supporters then had to find their way back to Lucretius’s many points, when to do so required much bravery.  It was a really good read about a topic that was new to me, and I felt a bit smug upon completion—look at me digesting this healthy word salad!

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.  This is a fascinating novel about what happens before and after a flu mutation kills 99% of the planet, and I loved it.  It could easily have been twice as long as it is, but Mandel does a great job of focusing on a handful of people and their situations in this new world, and then goes back and forth between the moment the change occurred, the characters’ lives when everything was normal, and then also now that twenty years have passed.  She in particular follows a group of actors and musicians who travel on foot from town to town (in the Michigan and Toronto areas) and perform symphonies and Shakespeare.  It’s just really well done—great story-telling, and interesting, realistic characters, and good writing.  I was sorry when it ended and I’ve been thinking about it for the past two weeks.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.  I thought it would be hard to be the book I read after completing Station Eleven, but Fowler’s novel is equally as good.  She creates a wonderful narrator with a really funny voice and outlook, who tells her story but starts in the middle.  She was a chatterbox as a child, so to get her to stop talking so much, her mother told her to only say out loud one out of every three things she thinks—a theme she repeatedly returns to, what is said versus not said, and how you choose to tell a story.  Anyway, the gist of the novel is that Rosemary, the narrator, had a brother and a sister, and one of them was a chimp, who at a certain point was taken away from the family.  It’s an excellent, witty, and original novel.

Garnethill by Denise Mina.  Somewhere a few years ago I read a blog entry about well-written mysteries, and then made note of what people recommended in the comments.  Several recommendations were for Denise Mina’s “Scottish Noir” mysteries, and I began with Garnethill, which is the first novel in a trilogy.  It’s good.  It takes place in Glasgow, and centers on a young woman, Maureen, who wakes up in a nightmare situation, and then tries to solve the mystery herself since the police are inclined to blame her or her innocent brother.  She’s a bit of a mess—irreverent, a boozer, a recovering incest survivor—and also witty and charismatic.  It’s a compelling read, and I will move happily on to the second book in the series.

Sun Storm by Asa Larsson.  This is one of those books that was recommended by someone in the New York Times’s By the Book column, in which they interview authors about books.  I wrote the name down on a scrap of paper, squirreled the scrap away, and then by the time I found it again had completely forgotten the recommendation’s origin.  So some author recommends Asa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson mysteries, but I no longer remember whom.  Anyway, this is the first in the series and I enjoyed it very much.  Rebecka is smart and grumpy and does not suffer fools gladly.  This particular mystery takes place way up in the north of Sweden, so there’s snow everywhere and of course, lots of coffee.  The writing is rather point blank, as opposed to flowery, and Larsson practices an economy of words on the whole.  Rebecka is a tax attorney, but travels back to her hometown to help out a childhood frenemy.  The mystery concerns a murder in an evangelical church, and all the church folk immediately close ranks.  It was a good read and I shall eventually read more in the series.

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey.  This book holds the #1 spot on several Top 100 Mysteries Lists, and I was intrigued enough to give it a try.  It was written in the 1930’s, I believe, and is one of several “Inspector Grant” mysteries.  In this one, Grant is in the hospital having injured his legs and back in a previous case.  Forced to lie supine for a few months, and made miserable by this fact, a friend tries to get him interested in solving a historical mystery.  He ends up investigating via historical document whether or not Richard the III really did murder the two young princes in the tower.  It was fascinating and a quick and witty read.  It’s interesting also to see how big a role rumors end up playing in what is considered to be historical truth.  Poor Richard the III!

The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion by Meghan Daum.  I really enjoyed Meghan Daum’s latest collection of essays, the subject of which ranges from meeting Joni Mitchell to the death of her mother to deciding not to have children to going to a party at Nora Ephron’s.  She is my age and grew up a few towns over from me, so I feel like we share many of the same cultural and temporal references – but regardless of that, her essays are well written and thoughtful and what she writes about within each essay is interestingly juxtaposed.  Her rather considerable ego is a weakness, but the essays are honest and on the whole very hard to put down.


Judith Ross said...

"We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves" is one of the more memorable books I have read in the past few years -- given that my memory of story lines these days is fleeting at best. Having experienced a great loss at an early age, I completely connected with the main character's (see, I can't remember her name!) reconnection with Fern, the lost sister who was a chimp.

This past weekend, at your suggestion, I think, I read "Everything I Never Told You" by Celeste Ng. It was a sorely needed page turner and a good break from the more 'serious' reading I have been doing (example: Naomi Klein's incredibly dense "This Changes Everything") I also have from the library both of the J.K. Rowling mysteries written under her pseudonym. Also holding my attention. Read on!

Elisabeth Ellington said...

YES! I nearly jumped out of my seat with excitement when I saw a Book Review feature on your blog! Please, please, please do this monthly! I am still tee-heeing at "healthy word salad." Several of these books are on my radar, but it takes me ages to get to grown people books now, tho I did read Daum's essay collection last month. I felt much as you did. I am trying to work myself up to a monthly review feature about grown people books since I never feature them in my regular Monday posts. But blogging=work. Need more time!